Norman R. Brown

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Overview.My research concerns two broad issues. First, I am interested in how people acquire, represent, organize, and use real-world knowledge (i.e., facts about the world learned through experience). Second, I am interested in understanding how people generate numerical estimates. These issues are related. On the one hand, quantitative estimates are affected by and often reflect the content and structure of the information used to generate them. As a result, quantitative estimates can reveal much about a given domain of knowledge (Brown, 1990; Brown & Siegler, 1993; Friedman & Brown, 2000a, 2000b). On the other hand, because real-world knowledge is complex, and relevant between-domain differences are large, estimation strategies vary from task to task, and different strategies often compete within the same task. As result, the study of real-world estimation produces information about the range of estimation strategies people use, the factors that influence strategy selection, and the ways that competing sources of information are coordinated (Brown, 1995, 1997; Brown & Siegler, 1993; Conrad, Brown, & Cashman, 1998). I have been pursuing these interests in the context of projects dealing with event frequency, population estimation, subjective geography, and autobiographical memory. These programs are outlined below. (See Brown 2002a and 2002b for more detailed overview.)

Event Frequency.This series of studies has demonstrated that people use multiple strategies to estimate event frequency in both laboratory and real-world settings (Brown, 1995, 1997, 2002; Conrad & Brown, 1996; Conrad, et al, 1998). This research has documented a direct connection between encoding factors, the frequency-relevant contents of memory, strategy selection, and estimation performance, and has contributed to the development of a Multiple Strategy Perspective on event frequency (Brown, 2002a). Recently, Bob Sinclair and I have employed this perspective to explain why men and women produce discrepant responses when asked to estimate their number of lifetime sexual partners (Brown & Sinclair, 1999; Sinclair, Brown, & Moore, in prep), and in collaboration with L. Bogart, this approach is being used to study sexual behavior in high risk populations. In addition, F. Conrad and I have been able to provide Multiple Strategy account for the difficulty that survey respondents experience when they are confronted with behavioral frequency questions that focus on the properties of events or objects rather than the events or objects themselves (Conrad, Brown, & Dashen, 2003). The perspective has also provided the theoretical underpinnings for a recent false-memory study (Brown, Buchanan, & Cabeza, 2000).

Population Estimation.R. Siegler and I (Brown & Siegler, 1991b, 1992, 1993) have demonstrated that familiarity-based intuitions (i.e., availability) play an important role in the estimation of national populations. Two recent experiments provided converging evidence for this claim: one compared population estimates and knowledge ratings cross-culturally (data were collected from both Chinese and Canadian university students), and the other demonstrated that primed country names elicit larger population estimates than unprimed country names (Brown, Cui, & Gordon, 2002). Brown and Siegler (1993) also found that teaching people the actual populations of a subset of countries can produce a large improvement in estimation accuracy. Recently, we demonstrated that the positive effects of this seeding procedure are long-lived and that seeding improves estimation accuracy, in part, by allowing people to recognize and correct mistaken beliefs about the range and distribution of national populations (Brown & Siegler, 1996, 2001).

Subjective Geography. In a series of experiments, A. Friedman and I have had people estimate the latitudes and longitudes of cities from around the world (Friedman & Brown, 2000a, 2000b, Friedman, Brown, & McGaffey, 2002). We have also exposed participants to relevant seed facts (i.e., the actual locations of a few cities) and observed their effects. This research indicates that categorical factors rather than perceptual ones are primarily responsible for distorted cognitive maps. We have also found that seeding can dramatically improve estimation accuracy and have identified several principles (i.e., coherence, inertia, conceptual coordination) that predict how the knowledge-base will change following exposure to a set of seed facts. Recently, we have expanded the focus of this research in three ways: First, we have used a cross-cultural design, one that compares estimates collected in Canada, the Northern U.S., the Southern U.S., and Mexico, to understand how physical distance and cultural distance are related to distorted geographical beliefs (Friedman, Kerkman, & Brown, 2002). Second, we are looking at the development of geographical beliefs in primary and secondary school children and attempting to determine how students of different ages respond to seed facts (Kerman, Friedman, Brown, Stea, & McCormick, 2003). This research should aid us in deciding whether seeding is a viable educational method and when it is likely to be most effective. Third, we use have demonstrated that city-to-city distance estimates show the same types of biases as latitude estimates and that maps affect geographical judgments in much the same way that seed facts do (Brown, Friedman, & Lee, in prep).

Autobiographical Memory. In collaboration with D. Schopflocher, I have developed a method called event cueing to investigate the organization of autobiographical memory (Brown & Schopflocher, 1998a, 1998b). Event cues are brief descriptions of personal events. During the event-cueing task, participants are required to respond to each event cue with the first personal event that comes to mind. On most trials (approximately 70%), the cueing event elicits an event from the same event cluster (i.e., a set of temporally and thematically related events). This indicates that memorable personal events are typically embedded in event clusters and suggests that event clusters play a primary role in organizing autobiographical memory. Recently, I extended this line of research to examine the relation between event age and memory organization (Brown, in press). To do this end, I have had participants in event-cueing experiments respond to very recent cues (i.e., events that have happened during the past week), older cues (i.e., events that happened within the past 5 years), and very old cues (i.e., childhood events). Preliminary results indicate event clusters are common regardless of the age of the cueing event, though older cues produce slower responses.

New Projects. In the past couple of years, I have begun several new projects. All of these build on approaches and methods that I have been working with and extend them into new domains. In one project, P. Lee and I investigated the possible relationship between strategy choice and forward telescoping in event dating (Lee & Brown, in press). Several other projects take the Metrics and Mapping framework as a starting point (Brown & Siegler, 1993). One of these is concerned with risk perception and communication (with A. Bostrom and J. Pracejus); a second looks at the subjective pricing of consumer goods (with K. Murray); a third focuses people's use of proxy cues (e.g., national wealth) when they estimate quality-of-life statistics (e.g., infant mortality, literacy; with P. Lee), and a fourth provides a fundamental reconceptualization of the standard post-comparison anchoring effect (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). The anchoring project also introduces a new method for handling test-retest data called response-space analysis (Brown & Moore, submitted). In conjunction with a Metrics-and-Mappings analysis, this methodology is also being used to study the transfer of hindsight bias. Finally, I am extending my work on autobiographical and historical memory (Brown, 1990, in press; Brown & Schopflocher, 1998a, 1998b; Brown & Siegler, 1991a) to look at group differences in communal memory and to understand to relationship between historical processes and the contents and structure of autobiographical memory.

Conclusion. It should be clear from the preceding that I have wide ranging interests and a somewhat unconventional take on Cognitive Psychology. I have adopted this research style because I have found that a solid understanding of a well-chosen real-world issue can produce both theoretical and practical insights and that rigorous laboratory work plays an important role in understanding complex real-world phenomena. At this point, I am committed to this general approach and intend to continue using a mixture of real-world and laboratory tasks in pursuit of basic and applied issues. Broadly speaking, I expect this work will contribute to better understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that allow people to behave intelligently in a complex and uncertain world.